News: CJ Exclusives

Voucher Supporters Call Ruling ‘Temporary Roadblock’

As parents wait, backers of Opportunity Scholarships vow appeal

The move Thursday by a Wake County Superior Court judge to strike down the state’s fledgling Opportunity Scholarships program is seen as a short-term setback by supporters of the private tuition vouchers. Even so, the ruling comes as parents were preparing to use those scholarships to send their children to private schools for the new school year.

The ruling by Judge Robert Hobgood leaves more than 5,000 children and their parents in limbo over whether they’ll be able to afford a private school education for their children.

The Opportunity Scholarships program, created by the General Assembly and signed into law last year by Gov. Pat McCrory, provides lower-income parents with up to a $4,200 voucher each school year to help underwrite the cost of tuition at a private school.

Iris MacElveen of Fayetteville is one of those parents. A single mother, MacElveen had planned to send her 12-year-old son to the sixth grade at Johnathan’s House Christian School in Fayetteville.

“School for him is starting the second of September,” MacElveen said. “But public school starts … Monday.”

MacElveen said she has already bought her son’s required school uniform for the private school, along with other supplies. Now, she may face the added expense of buying other clothing for her son to attend public school.

She said other parents hoping to send their children to the same school are in a similar predicament. One parent had rearranged her job schedule to work around the private school calendar. Now, that parent’s job could be in jeopardy, MacElveen said.

Another parent had opted not to send her child to an early college public school program in favor of the private school, MacElveen said. The early college enrollment deadline has passed for that parent, she said.

MacElveen said she wants to send her child to Johnathan’s House because the school has a lower teacher-student ratio than public schools and is able to give students more individualized attention.

Earlier injunction overturned

Hobgood in February issued a preliminary injunction barring implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship, saying he felt the voucher program was unconstitutional and that the plaintiffs suing to block the program were likely to succeed at trial.

In May, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned that order, allowing the state to lay the groundwork for issuing the scholarships until the case came to trial.

The Institute for Justice, which is representing parents seeking vouchers, said it immediately would appeal the decision and ask the N.C. Court of Appeals to allow the program to operate while the case works its way through the appeals process.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Roy Cooper, said the AG’s office plans to appeal the ruling because its attorneys believe the program is constitutional and the appeals court is the proper venue for that determination.

“The Opportunity Scholarships program, as enacted, is beyond a reasonable doubt unconstitutional under the Constitution of North Carolina,” Hobgood said. He cited a number of state constitutional reverences that, in his view, the program would violate.

Hobgood said providing taxpayer money for the scholarships without curriculum standards or teacher certification requirements “does not accomplish a public purpose.” He added that the program ran afoul of the state’s landmark Leandro decision, which requires the state to provide every child with the opportunity to have a “sound, basic education.”

‘Temporary roadblock’

Supporters of the Opportunity Scholarships program expressed disappointment with Hobgood’s ruling, but said it was not totally unexpected. And they expressed confidence that the ruling would be overturned on appeal.

“While this court decision might represent a temporary roadblock on the path towards educational freedom in North Carolina, I believe it’s just that – temporary,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “The Supreme Court overturned a previous temporary injunction ruling from this same court in May and I am confident that a higher court will do the same in this case. We’re going to continue to fight for a parent’s right to choose the educational setting that works best for their children — by any means necessary.”

Allison said thousands of families desperately desire the program, which offers parents choices that have not available to them.

“It is difficult to accept the idea that a certain number of children will be forced to languish in an educational setting that isn’t working for them,” Allison said.

“We will do everything in our power to ensure that [Thursday’s] decision is merely another speed bump on the way to victory at the North Carolina Supreme Court,” said Dick Komer, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice. “We view the North Carolina Supreme Court’s initial stay as a good indicator of how they will regard Judge Hobgood’s latest action. The plaintiffs’ claims in both cases are meritless and nothing that has transpired since then has strengthened their case.”

Added Renée Flaherty, another Institute for Justice attorney, “While some scholarships have already been awarded, the teachers’ association’s and school boards’ lawsuits have accomplished little besides denying many families an opportunity to seek better schools for their children. Their claims are based on a mistaken reading of the North Carolina Constitution and will ultimately be struck down.”

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, who sponsored the Opportunity Scholarships program in the General assembly, said he believed the ruling would be overturned on appeal.

“We have no reason to think that anything has changed that would make the appellate court change its mind,” Stam said. “If I were a parent whose child had been allocated a scholarship, I would send my child to school next week and tell her to study hard. If I were a school that had admitted these students, I would welcome them with open arms expecting payment a bit later.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, criticized Judge Hobgood’s decision.

“Today’s ruling by a single trial court judge advances a clear political agenda ahead of the needs of thousands of North Carolina children,” Berger said. “We are committed to providing students a sound, basic education — and that’s the very reason we don’t want to trap disabled and underprivileged children in low-performing schools that are failing to deliver on that responsibility. This ruling yet again frustrates parents who desperately want to provide what’s best for their kids, and I hope we will move swiftly to appeal.”

Berger noted that 16 other states and the District of Columbia have similar voucher programs.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who represented the N.C. School Boards Association in opposing the scholarships, said he and his clients “are obviously very pleased with the judge’s ruling. These are extraordinarily important constitutional issues involving the use of taxpayer money which is going to essentially private schools which did not have standards imposed upon them and had the ability to discriminate based on religion and violated the public purpose clause of the state Constitution. We’re pleased that the court saw the constitutional issues as we argued and we will go from there.”

Also praising the decision was the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

“We welcome this historic decision to preserve and protect North Carolina’s public schools from this dreadful voucher proposal,” Barber said. “This is a wonderful victory for all schoolchildren in North Carolina.”

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.